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General Synod digest: ‘We are not passive’ say disabled members

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Canon Timothy Goode (Southwark)

Canon Timothy Goode (Southwark)

Disability

AN AMENDED motion making a commitment “to working towards the removal of all remaining barriers to full participation for disabled people in the life and ministry of the Church” was carried nem. con. by the General Synod on Monday afternoon.

The motion, from the Disability Task Group (part of the Committee for Ministry among Deaf and Disabled People), included a series of requests: to the Faith and Order Commission and Liturgical Commission to make liturgies more inclusive to disabled people, for example, by removing rubrics such as “All stand”; to the Research and Statistics team to gather and analyse new and existing data on disabled people among the clergy and laity; to the Archbishops’ Council to amend legislation and require every diocesan advisory committee (DAC) to include at least one suitably experienced disabled person in its membership; and to dioceses to employ a full-time disability adviser (News, 1 July).

After welcoming the disabled community who were joining the debate both in person and online, Canon Timothy Goode (Southwark) began by quoting the baptismal liturgy in Common Worship: “In God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.”

The motion sought to hold the Church to its baptismal promise by focusing on the “Cinderella of marginalised groups”, he said.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesTemitope Taiwo (London)

Diversity, equity, and inclusion had become central to both society and the Church, but, while gender, race, and human sexuality were all important, “a very important community has largely been missing from that conversation,” he said.

Everyone experienced dependency at some point in their life, Canon Goode continued. “We are all utterly dependent in the womb.” To include the disability community was both a “justice issue and a gospel imperative”, because no one was exempt.

As a disabled person, Canon Goode said, he was often dependent on the gifts of others — including generosity and grace. “We should not fear dependencies; as Christians, we are dependent on God,” he said. This was founded on the constancy of God’s love for everyone.

Disabled people had for too long been unable to participate fully in the life and worship of the Church, which was “not a safe place for disability to flourish”, because of fear of discrimination, he said.

“Disabled people are all too often misrepresented as passive and devoid of personal agency,” and continued to face “physical, spiritual, and educational access” alongside “attitudinal barriers”, he said, which were “reinforced by often outdated or un-nuanced theologies of anthropology, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and eschatology”.

During the first pandemic lockdown, when churches had been forced to close, the Church had been faced with the exclusions of access which disabled people had experienced first-hand, Canon Goode continued. “With that first-hand experience, the Church can no longer ignore the cry of disabled people that is coming from the margins.”

His motion was a springboard to cultural change. He intended to return to the Synod with fresh proposals. “The Church has not missed disabled people and, therefore, this relationship lacks trust and lacks dignity.” The focus was not to help “some marginalised others”, he concluded, but the one body of Christ.

Beginning the debate, Fiona MacMillan (London), a newly elected member of the CMDDP, welcomed the motion as a step towards greater inclusion. St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, was now known for its work to include disabled people, since a group had been established to listen to the needs of the community, who were often marginalised by experience or geography, Ms MacMillan said. “Unless we listen, how do we know what the barriers are?”

People who had been met with “the constant drip of what’s not possible and why” would not wait for change, she warned. “Accessibility is not an act of charity, but an act of justice.” She reiterated that the motion was one step on a longer journey. “As long as we are excluded in practical and thoughtless ways, disabled people will continue to ask: ‘What does the Church stand for?’”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesCanon Rachel Mann (Manchester)

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) spoke of the “precarious and sacred thing, the scarred and wounded body”, which was her own, reminding the Synod that not all disabilities were visible. She was candid about the realities of her “vulnerable body” and said: “If Christ’s glorious risen body bore the wounds of his vulnerability into heaven, why should not mine?”

As a member of the Faith and Order Commission, she would “delight” to work on new resources, she said, and asked for the Church’s theological imagination to be set alight.

Supporting the motion, the Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Revd Beverley Mason (Northern Suffragans), spoke of the hurts of being excluded, including the “psychological torment” surrounding self-worth. She praised the charity Changing Faces, which campaigns for individuals with facial differences who had experienced discrimination — for example, during job interviews that were “awkward or cut short”. “People with physical and mental difference or disability are and remain in the image of God,” she said. The Lord desired a neurodivergent leadership: greater awareness, deeper understanding, and financial support of this. “Everyone should be able to find their place in the room and at the table.”

Shayne Ardron (Leicester), a member of the Liturgical Commission, was pleased at the proposed change of the rubrics, but warned that there was a time and a financial cost to this. Advice on changes would be welcome, she said. For example, currently, bishops were referred to only with masculine pronouns.

The Revd Jackie Doyle-Brett (York) spoke of the experience of a newly ordained priest, Darius, who was in the gallery, who had cerebral palsy and communication difficulties. He had been praised for his work and ministry, and had said to her that, while “doors have opened for everyone,” he had also come across challenges.

Some churches had prayed for his healing without his permission, and he had faced discrimination. He thought that the proposals did not go far enough, she said: a culture change was needed. It was about more than wheelchair access.

Moving her amendment by means of Zoom, Canon Valerie Plumb (Oxford) expressed delight that the motion was on the agenda, but suggested that every diocese should support a lead person on disability issues. This had been proposed 15 years previously, alongside the affirmation of disabled people, she said; but only 32 out of 42 dioceses had a named person, most of whom had a broader brief, were volunteers, and had no budget or expenses. Only two dioceses — her own and London — had a salary. This amendment was a reminder of the promises made in 2007, including a pooling of resources and renewal of that commitment.

Canon Goode welcomed the amendment as it was written. “It reminds us that we have been here before and we don’t want to be here again,” and that when the Synod carried motions that were not properly costed, it led to disappointment.

The Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Ven. Alastair Cutting (Southwark), remembered the ministry of the late Alyn Haskey (Obituary, 2 March 2012) — a writer, evangelist, and priest with cerebral palsy — whom he described as the “poster boy” for disability inclusion at the time of the 2007 motion. Archdeacon Cutting was, therefore, pleased that the Synod was underlining that motion.

Rebecca Chapman (Southwark) also welcomed the motion and amendment. The disability brief was huge, she said. Her mother had bipolar disorder, and her nine-year-old was autistic. She had experienced difficult responses from churchpeople and leaders over the years. Time was needed to listen and support all forms of disability, she said. The Church must go further than simply inclusion.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that her diocese had been fortunate enough to appoint a paid disability adviser, which had allowed the “capacity, but also the skills and gifts”, to bring about culture change. A disability statement had been created with the adviser, which said that a reimagining of ministry and expectations of ministers was needed instead of trying to fit disabled people within the existing cultural framework of the Church. It was about how the presence and perspectives of disabled people could change the Church as it was. If this was not accepted, she warned, the Church would end up being tokenistic. “This is not right.”

The amendment was carried on a show of hands.

To general applause, the chair, the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkins, confirmed that Sam Margrave had withdrawn his amendments.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesSarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) contributes through a BSL interpreter

Temitope Taiwo (London) said that, while he was a young disciple, one view that he had been taught was that disability was a problem to be solved. Later, as a youth worker, he had lived with a family who differed from him in many ways, in race, class, and wealth. Their teenage son had had a disability. “What I saw and experienced and felt for this young man was not problematic, but powerful,” he said: “not an issue to be solved but an individual to be celebrated.”

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, who chairs the Liturgical Commission, said that it was important to make liturgy more accessible to disabled people to avoid exclusion. He was cautious about the removal of rubrics, however. Guidance would be good, he said, but he warned that if the motion was interpreted as a requirement for the Church to remove all rubrics, this would be a huge synodical undertaking, requiring time and money. There was already flexibility in the current rubrics, he said.

Another member of the CMDDP, Jeanette Appleton (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), said that, as an occupational therapist, she was required to offer a “practical pathway” for people. She asked the Synod to take the order paper home, to make the issue a “priority of prayer”, and to bring it back to the dioceses and parishes to affect change.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together), through a BSL interpreter, said that deafness was very much a hidden disability. She was one of very few deaf Readers in the UK, and she was concerned that deaf clergy and lay ministers were not being replaced when they retired — “a huge travesty” — and that specialist training was needed for people to take up these ministries.

In some churches, a sign-language interpreter was presented as the solution, but the Church needed to go further, she argued. “If we want to be simpler, humbler, and bolder, we need to start by being bolder rather than simpler, and move things forward in a much more progressive fashion.”

The Revd David Tolhurst (Durham) said that, the previous night, he had attended the Synod fringe workshop, “More than lifts, loops, and loos”. In a “previous life”, this was what he had done, he explained. He had once worked for the Department of Work and Pensions as the disability employment adviser for Dover, advising on adjustments in the workplace based on the Disability Discrimination Act.

He had met his wife, Sarah, who was born with cerebral palsy. She had been “looked down upon and swept side”, and often people had offered to pray to cure her, to which she always responded: “No, thank you. I am God’s child; but can I pray for you?” This motion was not about access, but inclusion and belonging, he said; nor was it about adjustment; it was about culture. He asked the Synod to support the motion through prayer also.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, who chairs the Liturgical Commission

Canon Tim Bull (St Albans) was working with disabled clergy and laity and a disabled Paralympian to remove all barriers to the community, including those to disabled clergy who wanted to take on senior posts. This was no good, however, if the Church was still prejudice against this, he said.

The Bishop of Taunton, the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley (Southern Suffragans), also spoke of the late Mr Haskey, whose pioneering ministry, and his life and testimony, had had a profound effect on many, she said. Well-meaning people had limited his contributions in church to speaking: a cultural shift had been required to understand his gifts fully. Describing how she had supported him to preside at the eucharist, she said: “Alan may have needed me to support him in fully participating in the life of the Church, but I needed him to fully understand the full nature of the Christ we both followed.”

Responding, Mr Goode thanked all the contributors for a “special and moving” debate, and for understanding and endorsing the approach taken. He looked forward to returning with new motions to promote the full participation of disabled people, and to more conversations with the Liturgical Commission (he assured Bishop Atwell that they were not suggesting “tearing up” what had gone before). He ended with a prayer and Psalm 139, with said responses for the Synod.

The motion as amended was carried unanimously in a vote by Houses: Bishops: 32 nem. con.; Clergy: 153 nem. con.; Laity: 162 nem. con. It read:

 

That this Synod, affirming disabled people (with hidden as well as visible disabilities) to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God, and mindful of the progress already made in removing some of the barriers which disabled people, clergy and lay, face; commit to working towards the removal of all remaining barriers to full participation for disabled people in the life and ministry of the church, and, in initiating that process:

(a) request the Faith and Order Commission and the Liturgical Commission to consider how our liturgies might be made more inclusive to disabled people (e.g. by removing rubrics such as “all stand”);

(b) call upon the Research and Statistics team to interrogate existing data and gather new data, which quantifies the numbers of disabled people among clergy, whilst also planning to extend to include lay ministers and NCI/diocesan staff in the future, so that Synod can monitor the representation of disabled people within the church and encourage accountability for progress;

(c) request the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation to amend the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018 to require every DAC to include at least one person with direct experience and knowledge of accessibility issues in its membership or co-opted if not appointed as a member; and

(d) acknowledging that the General Synod motion passed in July 2007 (that every Diocese should appoint a lead person on disability issues), request that the ongoing review of dioceses, and recognising that resources for additional officers in every diocese are limited, encourage dioceses to cluster together to employ a full time Disability Adviser across a manageable group of dioceses.

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